Ancient literary texts resurrected

Classical scholars itching to read through a vast collection of what were hitherto illegible scraps of ancient manuscripts now have the means to do so, thanks to cutting-edge photographic technology used last week by scientists in England. According to a report in Britain’s Sunday Independent newspaper, in four days alone last week Oxford University classicists have managed to decipher a wealth of texts from the Oxyrhynchus hoard, discovered in Egypt during the 19th century, including works by literary heavyweights such as the playwrights Sophocles and Euripides. Other major authors, fragments of whose works have come to light, are the poets Archilochos and Hesiod, and the satirist Lucian. Scientists also hope to recover scraps of important early Christian texts, including the lost gospels. Together with the more highbrow stuff, a vast multitude of literary junk and archival material is expected to emerge, which is good news for historians. «The Oxyrhynchus collection is of unparalleled importance – especially now that it can be read fully and relatively quickly,» Oxford’s Dirk Obbink, head of the research project, told The Independent on Sunday. «The material will shed light on virtually every aspect of life in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt and, by extension, in the classical world as a whole.» A British team discovered the papyri at the end of the 19th century in ancient rubbish dumps outside the Graeco-Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus. Totaling some 400,000 fragments, which are stored at the Sackler Library in Oxford, it is a staggering corpus of texts. Until now, very few of the pieces had been read. Many were so faded, battered and worm-eaten as to be illegible – and it appeared that their secrets would remain forever impenetrable. The breakthrough, according to the report, was provided by multi-spectral imaging techniques developed from satellite technology and provided by US scientists from Brigham Young University in Utah. Texts discovered last week, including parts of Sophocles’s «Epigonoi» and 30 lines by Archolochus, are due to be published next month.

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